Rubin, Gayle

Assigned: Rubin, Gayle. From Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,Chapter I. “The Sex Wars”; from II. “Sexual Thoughts,” from VI. “The Limits of Feminism” (2195-2220). Also read the editors’ introduction (2192-95).

From Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality (1984)

Chapter I. The Sex Wars

1. On 2195-97 (“The time has come to think…”), Gayle Rubin says that “sexuality should be treated with special respect in times of great social stress” (2195). Why is that the case? She also points out that during some historical periods, sexuality is the subject of even more concern and argumentation than usual. How does she illustrate this point with references to the Victorian Period (1837-1901) in Great Britain and the United States? What campaigns against sexual expression and practice of various sorts were undertaken? On what bases were they initiated, and what results did they produce? (In responding, please consider what Rubin writes about childhood masturbation, obscenity, “sodomy,” and prostitution.)

2. On 2197-98 (“In the 1950s, in the United States…”), Rubin writes that “major shifts in the organization of sexuality” took place in the United States during the 1950s, and she explains that the authorities and the public started focusing on homosexuality and “sex offenders” (2197) or “deviants” as the newest threats to the public peace and morality. What government-hatched campaigns and instances of oppression does Rubin detail as occurring between the 1940s and 1960s in America, and what seems to account for their prevalence during that time period?

3. On 2199 (“The current period bears some…”), what similarities in official conduct related to the policing of certain kinds of sexuality does Rubin detail between previous eras and the American 1970s through the early 1980s? What kind of effort was made to harass and brutalize homosexuals in various parts of the country? How did the tightening of legal restrictions affect even behavior between consenting adults aside from homosexuals?

4. On 2199-2201 (“For over a century, no tactic…”), Rubin writes that “no tactic for stirring up erotic hysteria has been as reliable as the appeal to protect children” (2199). How does she go on to analyze the campaign against “child pornography” (2200; including the case of Jacqueline Livingston) and, even more controversially, men who are actively sexually interested in children? What does Rubin have against the laws passed to stamp out child pornography as well as the drive to identify and imprison “boy-lovers” (2201)? How, in particular, does she analyze the plight of this latter group?

5. On 2201-03 (“While the misery of the boy-lovers…”), Rubin describes “an extensive movement to compress the boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior” (2201), a movement she identifies as flowing from ultraconservative thought that has flourished in America at least since the time of the anticommunist “McCarthy Commission” in the 1950s on through the Reagan years (1981-89) during which Rubin is writing “Thinking Sex.” What examples of this movement’s targeting does she discuss? In responding, consider Rubin’s commentary on McCarthy’s treatment of Kinsey’s Institute; the push against SIECUS and UNESCO; the “Moral Majority” and its opposition to women’s reproductive rights, gay rights, etc.; and the drive to pass the proposed “Family Protection Act” of 1979. How, too, does Rubin describe the after-effects of such activities, and, paradoxically, the spur they give to the development of “a coherent and intelligent body of radical thought about sex” (2203)?

From II. Sexual Thoughts

6. On 2204-05 (“A radical theory of sex must…”), in Rubin’s view, what main things must “a radical theory of sex” (2204) be geared to accomplish? The most widespread inhibiting factor in this regard, suggests Rubin, is “sexual essentialism” (2204). How does she explain this widespread doctrine and describe its negative, inhibitive impact on the development of an adequate theory of sex (aside from its bad effects on actual people)? What “constructivist alternative” does Rubin, with the help of sociologists and historians such as Jeffrey Weeks and philosopher Michel Foucault, advance to counter sexual essentialism? How does she take care to explain that this constructivist approach need not be construed as absolutely denying human biology as a factor in sexuality? What, then, is the role of biology in sexuality—in what sense is biology (bodily processes, supposed innate physical or psychological “drives,” etc.) simply being subordinated to other, more compelling and pervasive, influences?

7. On 2205-06 (“By detailing the relationships between…”), in what sense, according to Rubin, is the Foucauldian emphasis on “the ways that sexuality is produced” (2205) instead of simply innate subject to misinterpretation by the public and by other theorists? How does Rubin defend Foucault from charges that he largely ignores the reality of sexual repression? How can a “radical theory” (2204) of the sort she believes is needed avoid this kind of charge in future?

8. On 2206 (“The new scholarship on sex has…”), aside from “sexual essentialism,” what “five other ideological formations,” according to Rubin, require discussion lest they trap a theorist in their webs of error? Why is “sex negativity” the most important of these formations? How does Rubin briefly analyze the history of this formation and the underlying assumptions that govern it?

9. On 2207 (“What I call the fallacy of misplaced…”), Rubin briefly articulates what she calls “the fallacy of misplaced scale,” the second of the ideological formations she has named to supplement her discussion of “sexual essentialism.” What is this fallacy? What premise underwrites it with regard to the alleged connection between sex and virtue? How has the fallacy impacted the making of laws regulating sexual conduct, and, more broadly, social attitudes towards certain varieties of sexual conduct?

10. On 2207-09 (“Modern Western societies appraise sex…”), Rubin address the third “ideological formation” that she says has taken root in a great deal of thinking about sexuality. She labels this formation, “a hierarchical system of sexual value” (2207). How does this system function as a means of ranking the acceptability or unacceptability of various sexual desires and practices? In what ways do the two “figures” included on 2209-10 respectively help Rubin show how modern Western societies evaluate and rank the most highly accepted among such desires and practices, choose the most socially, legally, and politically objectionable ones, and hold the line against the latter? How, according to Rubin, have medical science and psychiatry contributed to the fullest articulation of this oppressive hierarchy? (2208-09)

11. On 2209-11 (“All these models assume a domino…”), how does Rubin articulate the fourth “ideological formulation” that governs thinking about sex? This is the one she calls the “domino theory of sexual peril” (2209 bottom). What deep collective anxiety does this theory bespeak with regard to the potential impact of certain “deviant” and disfavored varieties of sexuality? How, according to Rubin, do the majority of “systems of sexual judgment” (2210) operate? What happens when those systems decide that a particular kind of sex is on the “good side of the line”? What happens to it when it is determined to be on the bad side of that line? (2210)

12. On 2210-11 (“As a result of the sex conflicts…”), pursuant to her discussion of the “domino theory of sexual peril,” what incremental changes in public and theoretical regard for certain practices does Rubin allude to? In what sense, according to Rubin, does the “domino theory” amount to a gross failure to uphold a “democratic morality” (2210) in the way that it judges sexual activities as either good or bad? How, in Rubin’s view, should the wielders of a democratic morality make those judgments, and for what purpose?

13. On 2211-12 (“It is difficult to develop a…”), how does Rubin explain the fifth “ideological formulation” that governs thinking about sex, the one she refers to as “[lack of] a concept of benign sexual variation” (2211 top)? Without such a concept, what happens to one’s notions about other people’s sexual preferences? How does this lack lead to the promotion of an unrealistic “single ideal sexuality” (2211)? In what way does “[e]mpirical sex research” of the kind done by Havelock Ellis and others provide some positive information about the many varieties of sexual preference and conduct, even as misguided political writing about sex and the failure to teach sexuality in college courses take their toll on the public’s understanding?

VI. The Limits of Feminism

14. On 2212-14 (“In the absence of a more…”), Rubin describes two strains in contemporary feminism: the first is essentially sex-positive in that it “has criticized the restrictions on women’s sexual behavior” and championed sexual liberation (2212). The second, says Rubin, is sex-negative in that it “resonates with conservative, anti-sexual discourse” and treats “sexual liberalization” as “inherently a mere extension of male privilege” (2212). Rubin’s critique of the latter strain is passionate and scathing. What specific charges does she level mainly against “anti-pornography” feminists? In what sense, according to Rubin, have they adopted some of the most repressive and harmful attitudes coming from age-old actors or groups among the predominantly heterosexual community and merely applied a “lesbian feminist” twist?

15. On 2214-15 (“The anti-pornography movement and…”), Rubin addresses the effect of strong polarization within the feminist movement in a way that will be familiar to students of political discussions about the right and the left: there is a tendency to insist that the truth must lie somewhere in between two “extremes.” In Rubin’s view, what is wrong with this assumption that an “emergent middle” (2215) will deliver a rational center and end the partisan bickering at the alleged polar extremes? If there is one viewpoint that may fairly be characterized as “extreme,” does it follow that in every case there must be another equally extreme opposite viewpoint? Explain the logical fallacy involved in this claim.

16. On 2216-18 (“In contrast to cultural feminists…”), how does Rubin assess the mindset of “sexual moderates” when they are confronted with the demand that “erotic non-conformists” (2216) be accorded not only the right to participate in politics but also the right not to be subjected to “an implicit system of ideological condescension”? What two-part argument do these moderates tend to advance in discussing the status of, say, sadomasochists and homosexuals, among other non-conforming people? Why is the moderates’ focus on “questions of consent” (2216) also mostly mistaken, given the way the law treats nearly any sexual behavior it considers misconduct aside from rape? For example, what assumption do sodomy laws (still on the books in several states in spite of Lawrence v. Texas, a landmark 2003 U. S. Supreme Court ruling in that invalidated all such laws), incest statutes, and certain S/M (sadomasochism)-related cases make about the issue of “consent”? (The text of Lawrence v. Texas is available by searching on Finally, in what way, according to Rubin, is psychology “the last resort” (2218) of so-called moderates who can’t bring themselves to accept the notion that “sexual dissidents” are as “conscious and free” as any other group of people?

17. On 2218-20 (“The position which defends the political…”), on what basis does Rubin “challenge the assumption that feminism is or should be the privileged site of a theory of sexuality” (2218)? Why, according to her, is it vital to avoid confounding claims about gender with claims about sexuality? To what extent does Rubin criticize some of her own earlier work, such as the essay “The Traffic in Women,” because it tends to confound these two sets of notions? What criticism does she also level against the renowned feminist Catharine MacKinnon (2219-20), and how does she analogize the overapplication of feminist thinking to overapplication of Marxism to areas that go well beyond its purview of class relations within capitalism? Finally, how does Rubin suggest that theorists should reconfigure the relationship between feminist thought and the kind of “radical theory of sex” (2220) that she herself advocates?

18. General question: In “Thinking Sex…,” Gayle Rubin offers quite a catalog of organized instances of sexual repression and oppression in the United States during the twentieth century. To what extent has the actuality of such repression diminished since the mid-eighties when she wrote this foundational essay in Gay and Lesbian studies back in 1984? Which varieties of sexuality have become more accepted by “mainstream” groups and individuals in America since then, and which have not? Give some instances and discuss them. “Marriage equality” (which became U.S. law with the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015; text available via search on would be one obvious avenue to pursue, but there are surely others. All in all, how much has changed—or not changed—in the three-and-a-half decades since the publication of this key essay in feminist anthropology?

19. General question: In “Thinking Sex…,” Gayle Rubin identifies a number of factors involved in the majority’s frequent drives to “police” sexuality in repressive and sometimes savage, desperate ways, generally in the name of what they consider the greater good. Consider the other side of the phenomenon in more detail than the previous general question required: what exactly is involved in the making of positive change—change towards a more enlightened set of views and practices in connection with sexuality? How (i.e., by the involvement of what specific factors or change agents), for example, did much of America go from being astonished that anyone would entertain the notion of two men or two women marrying to responding more or less positively to the adoption of “marriage equality” as the law of the land in 2015? How did that happen? What about the increasing support for transgender people’s full rights? What is the present status of that drive towards equal treatment? To what extent, too, is such progress subject to “backlash” action on the part of opponents of sexual liberation—should we count on positive change to be permanent once it has been achieved? Why or why not?

20. General question: In “Thinking Sex…,” Gayle Rubin appears to cast pedophiles as an oppressed, marginal group. This view may trouble many even among those readers who generally support Rubin’s “sex-positive” approach against what she suggests is an anti-sex branch of feminist thought. Still, feeling queasy about an argument is not a good excuse for failing to understand it. What, then, is the likely basis of Rubin’s refusal simply to agree with the vast majority of Americans that this kind of sexual behavior is harmful to children and morally reprehensible on the part of adults? It seems that Rubin’s position is logically obliged to begin with the concept of “consent” as a determining factor in whether certain sexual practices are licit or illicit. How solid and unambiguous is this concept, in your view? (For a consideration of this legal and ethical concept in relation to the sexual conduct of children and adolescents, look up “Romeo and Juliet Laws.”) As for a counterargument against Rubin, what factors aside from consent might need consideration in regards to what Rubin calls “cross-generational” (2209-10) sex? What about the idea of an inherent power imbalance between adults and children? Or the relative emotional immaturity and naiveté of young people in comparison to adults? In sum, on what grounds can one argue that this kind of sexual activity should not be permitted?

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake